TAKES MANY DISGUISES, THOUGH ONLY A JOKER would equate the New Jersey Turnpike
with the Yellow Brick Road. Yet where most other travelers have seen only
smokestacks, frayed nerves and exit signs, Anjelina Belakovskaia found her way
out a car window, just off a plane from Ukraine six years ago, she was dazzled
by the simple logic of America in motion. "The highway said, 'Here's the
way. Everybody just go,'" she says, her voice softening at the memory.
"Everything depends on you -- if you go fast, if you go slow if you get
there, if you don't, it's all up to you." She laughs. "Of course, then
I didn't know about speed limits."
Belakovskaia, now 28, has learned anything about slowing down since her arrival
in the U.S., she doesn't let it show. Her version of the immigrant's odyssey has
taken her from slicing watermelon at a fruit stand in Brooklyn to trading
currency on Wall Street, from hustling chess games in Manhattan's Washington
Square Park to her current position as the reigning U.S. women's chess champion.
Like a teenager on a skateboard, Belakovskaia surfs through life amused but
hardly surprised by her stops along the way--be it a movie set or, these days,
an elementary school classroom in Brooklyn, where she lights a fire under
seven-year-olds dreaming of captive queens.
is another long afternoon at the end of the school year at PS. 217 in Brooklyn,
a time when, if a teacher's not careful, a child's brain can turn into a vacant
lot. But Margaret Jansen's classroom is a hive of activity: Second graders
cluster around tables, observing chess moves with a rising excitement. The
competition is so keen that Jansen's calls for order are barely acknowledged.
"Put your hands down on the desk," she says. "Even if you just
took the queen, you must stop playing!'"
is restored when a young woman in tight black jeans, an equally tight striped
T-shirt and high heels walks to the front of the classroom and flicks a cascade
of dark curls away from her face with a hand punctuated by long red nails. (Belakovskaia's
artlessly flamboyant appearance has not been lost on her students; as a class
project they wrote letters to Mattel, trying to interest the company in
marketing a chess-playing doll they called, "Anjelina 2000, the Barbie with
Beauty and Brains."')
is our last lesson," Belakovskaia tells them. "I want to make sure
that you know how to win the game. That is most important." That philosophy
belies her own approach to chess, as well as to life. To Belakovskaia, both are
games to be played with gusto while others tally the wins and losses. "She
is a very aggressive player,'" says Alex Yermolinsky, a grandmaster and the
U.S. men's champion. While many players favor well-known strategies or
positions, Belakovskaia is inventive and, says Yermolinsky, "never
in her attic apartment in Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn community known as Little
Odessa because of the 150,000 immigrants from the former Soviet republics who
have settled there since 1989, Belakovskaia makes her journey sound simple,
though it couldn't have been. She stepped off the plane from Odessa with $100
and a tourist visa in her pocket. Her plan was to compete in the World Open in
Philadelphia, spend a couple of weeks in the U.S., then head home. That plan
changed her first day here. She didn't know any English, or anyone who spoke
English, or what she would do for a living, or even where she would live -- but
she knew she wanted to stay. "I thought, What have I got to lose'"'
she recalls. "I had a return ticket. I could always go hack home."
and her brother Leonid grew up in Odessa's febrile mix of artists, musicians and
scholars. Their father, Mikhail, was a college professor and their mother Lilia,
taught elementary school. "In Odessa every parent thinks their child is
genius," Belakovskaia says. "As soon as you turn six, you take some
kind of lessons." By the time she was 11, Belakovskaia was the
highest-rated player her age in Odessa and thoroughly fascinated by chess.'
"It was interesting to find the best way around the board, to see what I
could create, to solve a problem," she says. "I liked the challenge,
the logical thinking.'"
have been plentiful since. After Belakovskaia competed in the World Open in
1991, she was broke, so she made her way to Brighton Beach, where a fellow
immigrant gave her a room in which to stay. Someone else gave her subway
directions to Washington Square, where, she was told, she might earn money
playing chess. Her first words of English were, "Five dollars a game."
Her hustling paid its biggest dividend when she was paid $2,000 to be an extra
in the 1993 movie Searching for Bobby Fisher, which was filmed in Washington
then she has had about 20 jobs, including painter, waitress, fruit seller and
espresso maker. Her bluffing ability was most helpful when she interviewed for
an internship as a currency trader on Wall Street. The interviewer showed her a
graph, which charred the value of deutsche marks against dollars, and wanted to
know if the deutsche mark was going up or down. Belakovskaia saw that the graph
was headed in a northerly direction, but, "I figured it was like the logic
for chess: Don't look just straight ahead for the answer, analyze the other
possibilities. So I said, 'Down', and I was right." She got the job.
classes Belakovskaia teaches at P.S. 217 and elsewhere have given her a measure
of financial stability that enables her to play tournament chess. (She is one of
four women's grandmasters in America.) But her passion is costly: Money earned
in the winter goes for traveling and entering tournaments in the summer. Her
commitment even cost her a serious relationship, which fizzled when her
boyfriend made her choose between him and a tournament in Las Vegas. "I
think I look for another grandmaster next time," she says.
tells these stories with a shrug, but she clearly has an inexhaustible will. And
she continues to believe in the roll of the dice, in the sheer joy of goosing
fate. In life, as in chess, she says, "a lot of people are losers because
they take it too seriously. For me it's a game. I If I lose, then I will win
Photograph by Joseph Pluchino